St. Paul’s Congregational Church
June 13, 2021; Proper 6B
Ezekiel 17: 22 – 34; Mark 4: 26 - 34
How does your garden grow?
For generations, members of my family have grown what’s become known as the Purdy Rose Bush – it’s a gorgeous pink rose that spreads under ground from slips cut from the “mother plant”, named after Julia Purdy my great-great-great grandmother, who brought the original plant with her from Benton, PA to Sherman, PA around 1840. Julia was born in 1802 and died in 1868. My father brought a slip of it home one year to my childhood home in Farmington, CT and I remember its beauty and how it exploded with growth. When I moved to Middlebury after Seminary, he brought me a slip and I planted it at the house where I lived. It started out with one branch with one rose but by the time I moved it was huge – one of my regrets in leaving Middlebury for Glen Ridge was that since I moved in January, I couldn’t bring a slip of that one with me to New Jersey.
Fast forward to a few years later – when my father died in 2016 and my family was getting ready to sell the house, one of my most precious memories is my brother, my nieces, their families and me going into dad’s garden and digging up bulbs and plants to bring to our homes – including an old fashioned bleeding heart plant and slips from the Purdy Rose. Today, my rose is blooming at my house here in New Jersey – again, it went from one branch and one flower the first year to today – including this year spreading under my deck as well – now it’s big enough for lots of beautiful heavy and fragrant pink flowers – I’ve had to prop it up with a peony ring – it’s gorgeous. And one of my nieces has one too from my dad’s house and has given a slip to her sister to plant at her first house! Each spring we text each other pictures of the first flower in bloom – it’s become a wonderful, cherished tradition that helps us remember that we are indeed connected to our family by this plant for nearly 200 years!
I’m grateful to have inherited some of the Purdy-Reynolds green thumb. We all know people with green thumbs, don’t we – those people who seem to just walk by and plants just naturally perk up. The person whose yard is an explosion of color, orchids always blossom, whose seeds always germinate and sprout as they should?
The beginning of our gospel reads, “the kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” Doesn’t this bring to mind people with green thumbs – because, though our gospel makes it sound easy – scattering seed on the ground, and sleep and rising night and day – if you are a person without green thumbs, it might be that you scatter the seeds and they lie, unchanged, in the earth.
This metaphor – the way Jesus describes the kingdom of God – makes it sound, on first read, like it comes to fruition by itself. Like there’s no responsibility we have to the seeds. I wonder, though, if that’s entirely true. Looking at people with eternally green thumbs – and thinking of ourselves and our, perhaps, not-green-thumbs, it’s easy to believe that this is just a fact of life; that our thumb colors are unchangeable, like hair color or eye color. But it’s not – it’s a whole lot more complicated than that.
Care goes into seeds, even before they are planted. Each packet is dated and put in a cool, dry place to aid in its germination rate. Good gardeners keep track of how well different seeds have performed – my dad had notebooks filled with information! He could tell you which tomatoes gave the most fruit and which was sweetest – he could tell you which plants underperformed or seemed to attract pests. Good gardeners haven’t just planted the seeds and walked away – they’ve paid attention, noticing what flourishes, and what struggles.
Care goes into the soil too – gardeners often have worm bins or compost piles – churning out what they call “black gold” – rich, fertile soil for the garden beds. People with green thumbs are constantly evaluating their soil, sometimes every sniffing the dirt – maybe they’ll add amendments to strengthen the nutrition base. They keep track of what has grown where so they can rotate their crops, allowing the seeds themselves to deposit and draw from the earth to strengthen the health of the whole.
They also know they have to give care in watering seedlings. Water can be a tricky balance - the ideal is the Goldilocks measure: not too much, or the seeds will drown, and not too little, or they won’t have what they need to sprout. Water has to be just right, again demanding a level of care and attention from the gardener, asking us to notice when rain has fallen, or when a day is particularly hot.
When I was installing the peony ring around my Purdy Rose, it got me to think about green thumbs and this parable, and I began wondering whether there might be more responsibility in scattering seed, in creating conditions for God’s kingdom to take root than it might at first appear. There is a lot of unseen work that gardeners do – ways they have earned their green thumbs. There’s dedication in tending to the plants, even before they are scattered. I wonder if there’s unseen work – responsibility – that we have, too. How do we create favorable conditions for the kingdom of God to flourish here at St. Paul’s? How do we prepare the soil and care for the seeds and bring our best to them?
In order for the kingdom of God to take root, its seeds need to be cared for – kept in a place to ensure their healthy germination. Maybe this happens when we read scripture and pray. We hold on to seeds, deep inside our hearts – and they wait there until it is time to be scattered.
Our soil is made nutrient-dense when we rest it from constant planting. Sabbath is one of those practices – giving us some time for our soil to be at rest – some time for the earth to replenish itself. Sabbath practice is one of ceasing, and pausing – it’s counterintuitive to the world, which would have us work without ceasing. And maybe our soil is turned and aerated when we pray and take time to dwell with, to abide with God, when we are preparing it, ourselves, to be good ground in which God’s kingdom will take root.
And maybe we water our seedlings when we pray or meditate, when we take time to be with God. This might look different for different people; for some, being with God is singing along to worship music, and for others, it’s sitting in silence. For some, maybe it’s reading a book, and for others, in being outside. Taking time to abide in God through prayer or meditation, the seeds we are caring for are scattered into good soil and nurtured as they grow.
The kingdom of God is like a seed – it is coded, already, with the plant it is going to grow into. But it still needs good soil to take root. It needs nutrients and water and a clear patch of earth to call its own. While we don’t have to do the work of creating the seed, we do have a responsibility to prepare the soil. The kingdom of God will surprise us with how and where and when it pops up – but we still have to do the work of green thumbs.
As we go into and through the gardening season and enjoy our vegetables and flowers – it occurs to me that this image expands and gives us some direction when we think about our life together as church.
Which of our seeds are underperforming now? What new varieties should we be trying? And then, how do we prepare the soil for the new varieties? Which of our ministries are flourishing? What parts of our garden are struggling? What’s missing in the garden of St. Paul’s? And then, how are we nurturing our seedlings? Enough water? Too much water? What nutrients do we need to add to the soil? My rhododendron has been in my front garden for at least 5 years never blooming – but when I added the right fertilizer at least there were 2 blossoms. Maybe next year there will be more – if I remember to fertilize again.
Now, I ask you to reflect on the seeds God has planted in you. Maybe they are things like creativity, patience, musical ability, compassion, resourcefulness, manual dexterity, organization, teaching, cooking, courage, openness, you may well think of others. Notice what these seeds are and be grateful for the gifts God has given you.
And then ask yourself, how can I contribute my seeds to creating a garden full of bounty and beauty here at St. Paul’s Church? How do we use our seeds together in ministry to the glory of God? As we explore these questions together, we may be amazed and surprised at what happens!
Maybe our little seeds will be like that mustard seed, which when sown upon the ground is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet, when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.
With God’s help, may this be so. And like the Purdy Rose, our church will bring joy and faith and love for generations to come. Amen.